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The Amazing Origins Of Church-State Separation

What the First Amendment separated was the Church as an institution from the State as an institution.

—Gary DeMar, God and Government (1997)

To admit that the church is separate from the state is not the same as saying that the state is separated from obligation to God Himself and His rule.

—Greg L, Bahnsen, By This Standard (1985)

king uzziah incense

image courtesy of Bible Vector

The King in the Sanctuary

King Uzziah stood within the Holy Place, the first of the sacred chambers that made up the Temple proper. He held in his hand a censer of coals from the brazen altar without. Before him was the golden altar for incense. Beyond that was the veil that separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies, where God manifested His presence. Uzziah understood the ritual. He was to place the coals on the sacred incense that lay upon the altar. A fragrant cloud would gush upward, fill the room, and pass through the veil into the very presences of God. To offer incense before Yahweh was a great privilege. In fact, up to this time, only God’s priests had made this offering. But Uzziah was confident that God would accept his act of worship.

After all, Uzziah had been a good king. Elevated to the throne at sixteen, he had served Yahweh and Israel without deviation (2 Chron. 26). He fought against the Philistines and destroyed the walls of their cities. He subdued the Arabians. He repaired and fortified the walls of Jerusalem. He built defensive towers in the wilderness to protect travelers and migrating shepherds—including his own. He dug wells so those shepherds could water their flocks. He equipped his soldiers with formidable armor and weapons. He built catapults and ballistae, designed by his own men, to protect Jerusalem from siege. And through all these practical duties, he had sought after Yahweh:  he had listened to God’s prophets. Everyone knew that Uzziah was a godly king.

So Uzziah was annoyed, vexed, finally infuriated, when the Levitical priests blocked his way to the altar. There were eighty of them, and they were all valiant men. Their chief, Azariah the High Priest, spoke with force:

“It is not for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to Yahweh, but for the priests, the sons of Aaron, who are consecrated to burn incense. Go out of the sanctuary, for you have trespassed, and you shall have no honor from Yahweh for this.”

Before Uzziah’s anger could carry him into any further sacrilege, God Himself intervened. Leprosy rose up in Uzziah’s forehead, marking him as one of the living dead. In horror the priests laid hands on Uzziah and thrust him from the Holy Place. Uzziah didn’t resist; he hurried along with his escorts, for he understood full well what had happened to him and what it meant for the rest of his reign.

King Uzziah was a leper until the day of his death. He dwelt in an isolated house, because he was a leper; for he was cut off from the house of the LORD. Then Jotham his son was over the king’s house, judging the people of the land (2 Chron. 26:21).

Church and State in Israel

The history of Uzziah illustrates an important biblical principle:  God never commits all earthly authority to anyone, except His own Son. Jesus Christ has all power in heaven and earth (Matt. 28:18). No earthly king, priest, pope, parliament, congress, or bureaucracy has any claim to earthly sovereignty. More particularly, the history of Uzziah points to God’s intention that the administration of State and Church, of civil government and formal worship, be institutionally distinct. The State is not to direct worship, administer the sacraments, or preach the gospel. The Church is not to pass civil laws, collect civil taxes, or impose the death penalty.

Even the Davidic kings, who ruled by special covenant as God’s adopted sons, were not to trespass the boundaries of the Temple. They could protect it; they could encourage the priests to clean it up; but they couldn’t approach any nearer to God’s presence than any other layman. They couldn’t offer sacrifice directly; they couldn’t usurp the priestly functions.

Church, State, and Law

Now the king and the courts were responsible to punish certain crimes that secularists today would regard as purely religious:  public idolatry, blasphemy, and Sabbath desecration were all civil crimes. The children of Israel understood that they were God’s people by covenant, and that His laws applied to the whole of their lives and not just to the private commitments and persuasions of their hearts. But the extent of the civil magistrate’s authority in civil matters was clearly defined in the Mosaic law. The magistrate could punish no one for an opinion, a belief, or a conviction. The law dealt only with overt acts witnessed by two or more impartial witnesses. Furthermore, the magistrate wasn’t to compel anyone to worship Yahweh. Pagans could live in complete peace in Israel as long as they didn’t drag their idols out into the public square.

Of course, even these limitations seem horribly intolerant, harsh, and oppressive to the modern and post-modern ear. But the truth is that, for nearly fifteen hundred years, Western civilization operated, more or less, in terms of this understanding of civil government. And for more than two hundred years, the American colonies and, after that, the early Republic, operated generally in terms of the same understanding. State and church were administratively distinct and separate, but the civil government still regarded the worship of pagan idols, blasphemy against the Christian God, and willful desecration of the Lord’s Day as crimes, punishable in some degree by civil sanctions.

Church and State in Early America

The thirteen American colonies were religious undertakings. In most cases, their charters, founding documents, and earliest laws were not only generally theistic, but explicitly Christian. For instance, in Virginia’s charter, the king declared:  “We, greatly commending and graciously accepting of their desires for the furtherance of so noble a work, which may, by the providence of Almighty God, hereafter tend to the glory of His divine majesty, in propagating the Christian religion to such people, as yet live in darkness and miserable ignorance of the true knowledge and worship of God. . . .”

The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut (1639) spoke of the importance of the maintenance and preservation of “the liberty and purity of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus which we now profess, as also the discipline of the churches, which according to the truth of the said Gospel is now practiced among us. . . .”

Later, when the colonies became states within the Federal Union, they continued to affirm the organic connection between Christianity and their civil governments. For example, any officer serving in the state of Delaware was required to make this profession:  “I, (name stated), do profess faith in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ His only Son, and in the Holy Ghost, one God, blessed forever more; and I do acknowledge the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by divine inspiration.”

In Vermont, each member of its House of Representatives was required to subscribe to this declaration:  “I do believe in one God, the Creator and Governor of the universe, the rewarder of the good and the punisher of the wicked. And I do acknowledge the scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by divine inspiration, and own and profess the protestant religion.”

The constitution of North Carolina said, “That no person who shall deny the being of God, or the truth of the Protestant religion, or the divine authority of the Old and New Testaments, or who shall hold religious principles incompatible with the freedom and safety of the State, shall be capable of holding any office or place of trust or profit in the civil department within this State.”

The point is that early America, while maintaining in large measure an administrative separation of Church and State, nevertheless saw the Christian faith as integral to her civil government, institutions, and laws. The First Amendment to the Constitution—which, with the rest of the Bill of Rights, was a defense of personal liberty and State authority against Federal usurpations—was in perfect harmony with America’s political reality. In fact, as far as many of its supporters were concerned, it was supposed to protect that reality from the new Federal government.

Authority by Covenant

“Separation of Church and State” can mean all sorts of things, depending on who’s defining it. But there is most certainly a biblical doctrine of separation that draws boundaries between Church and State without exempting the State from the authority of Jesus Christ. The doctrine is hostile to religious and political tyranny, but in harmony with the biblical principle of civil authority by covenant.

Of course, “tyranny” itself can have all sorts of meanings. To some, any government that doesn’t allow or even fund any and all entitlements is tyrannical. Obviously, no people, no nation, committed to such values will want anything to do with the Church or with Christ Himself. The only separation such a people will tolerate is total separation of the Church and the Gospel from society, culture, and public life. The Great Commission, however demands that we disciple the nations to Jesus Christ and it has no provision for Christians passively watching friends, family, and fellow citizens rush headlong to destruction simply because they don’t like our God, His gospel, or His laws.


A society founded upon a purely secular contract among its citizens is necessarily hostile to the crown rights of Jesus Christ. Social contracts that recognize no originating authority beyond the people are at war with Christ’s kingdom. Civil compacts that speak well of God in the abstract, but refuse to obey His laws, are in rebellion against Him.

God the Father has given His Son the heathen as an inheritance (Ps. 2). He has promised that “all people, nations, and languages, should serve him” (Dan. 7:14). He has promised that He will place all of His Son’s enemies under His feet (Ps. 110). There is no neutrality here, no king’s X for civil government, no “get out of jail free” card for Obama. It is understandable that unbelievers who hate God’s law and are terrified by His wrath want to pretend otherwise. But it is more than remarkable that Bible-believing Christians want to share that insane pretense.

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